Military Wiki
William "Bull" Nelson
Major General William "Bull" Nelson
Nickname "Bull"
Born (1824-09-27)September 27, 1824
Died September 29, 1862(1862-09-29) (aged 38)
Place of birth Maysville, Kentucky
Place of death Louisville, Kentucky
Place of burial 1st Cave Hill Cemetery, 2nd Camp Dick Robinson, last Maysville, Kentucky
Allegiance  United States of America
Service/branch United States Navy
U.S. Army
Union Army
Years of service 1840–1861 (Navy); 1861–1862 (Army)
Rank USN lt com rank insignia.jpg Lieutenant Commander (Navy)
Union army maj gen rank insignia.jpg Major General (Army)

William "Bull" Nelson (September 27, 1824 – September 29, 1862) served as an officer in the United States Navy for nearly twenty-one years before the outbreak of the American Civil War in the spring of 1861. He was authorized by President Abraham Lincoln to arm Kentucky loyalists with 5,000 muskets and that led to his being detached from the Navy to recruit 10,000 troops for a campaign into East Tennessee. That effort brought about the establishment of Camp Dick Robinson on August 6, 1861. Nelson was appointed to Brigadier General of United States Volunteers on September 16, 1861 and promoted to Major General in July 1862.

Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell noted that "no commander during the war enjoyed the confidence of his troops in greater degree than did General Nelson." Those men did not like the harsh and overbearing ways of "Old Buster," but they admired his willingness to chastise officers whom he considered to be incompetent.

During the defense of Louisville in September 1862, Nelson dismissed Brig. General Jefferson C. Davis for shirking his duty. One week later Davis was publicly humiliated by Nelson when he confronted him in the lobby of the Galt House. The unexpected embarrassment caused Davis to lose control and he killed the unarmed Nelson with a single shot to the heart. Davis was never prosecuted for the incident and both became better noted for that affair rather than their service in the armed forces.[1]

Early life

Fanciful depiction of Gen. William "Bull" Nelson being shot by fellow Union Gen. Jefferson C. Davis at the Galt House in Louisville, Kentucky on September 27, 1862

William Nelson was the third son of Dr. Thomas W. Nelson (1796–1849) and Frances Doniphan (1795–1845) of Maysville, Kentucky. He attended Maysville Academy (Seminary) and enrolled in Norwich University at age thirteen. Two years later, his preparatory training at the Vermont military school was concluded when Congressman Garrett Davis had secured an appointment for him to become a midshipman in the United States Navy. In the spring of 1840, Nelson reported for training aboard the USS Delaware. For the next five years he sailed the South Pacific under the leadership of harsh, overbearing, and insensitive brutes. Nelson then joined the first class to attend the newly established Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. On July 11, 1846 Nelson became a passed midshipman and the following October, he reported for duty aboard the USS Raritan, the flagship for the Home Squadron in the Gulf of Mexico. At the Siege of Veracruz, he served with Naval Battery No. 5, and on the second Tabasco Expedition, Nelson was a member of the Second Artillery Division. In February 1848, he became acting master of the USS Scourge. At the conclusion of his service, Nelson received a sword for heroism and proficiency as an artillerist. In the summer of 1849, he joined the Mediterranean Squadron, and on September 1, 1851, he was acting lieutenant of the USS Mississippi when exiled Hungarian revolutionary Louis Kossuth boarded the vessel to come to the United States. In December, Nelson became an escort for the Magyar’s famous tour of the United States. On September 19, 1854 he was promoted to sailing master and the following April 18, 1855 achieved the rank of lieutenant. In September 1858, Nelson joined the USS Niagara for the mission of returning captured slaves to Monrovia, Liberia. Two years later, he was at the Washington Navy Yard as an ordnance officer.[2]

Civil War


Nelson was sent to Louisville in mid-April 1861 to determine if Kentucky would stay in the Union. On his return to Washington, President Abraham Lincoln gave him authority to oversee the distribution of 5,000 arms to the loyal citizens of their native state. On July 1, 1861, Nelson was detached from the Navy and given orders to organize a campaign into East Tennessee. The first week in August, those recruits were marched into Camp Dick Robinson in violation of Kentucky's somewhat duplicitous position of neutrality. For this work Secretary of Treasury Salmon P. Chase saw that Nelson became a brigadier general on September 16, 1861. He then organized a new brigade at Camp Kenton three miles below Maysville and marched them to Olympian Springs, Bath County, Kentucky. Near the end of October those troops from Ohio and Kentucky routed the Rebels at Hazel Green and West Liberty. On November 8, Rebel troops under Capt. Andrew Jackson May fought a delaying action against Nelson at the Battle of Ivy Mountain. That night and following day Confederates under Col. John S. Williams abandoned Piketon (Pikeville, Ky.). Early the next morning Nelson's northern prong under Col. Joshua W. Sill arrived in the town and that marked the end of the Big Sandy expedition.

Pittsburg Landing/Shiloh

At the end of November 1861, Nelson joined the Army of the Ohio under the command of Don Carlos Buell at Louisville. Nelson commanded the Fourth Division and that unit became the first to enter Nashville on February 25, 1862. The following month, Buell received orders to join Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Savannah, Tennessee and Nelson obtained the lead for that advance when Buell gave him permission to wade his men across the Duck River at Columbia, Tennessee. Nelson arrived at Savannah on Saturday, April 5, 1862, and at dawn the following morning, the enemy assaulted Federal troops below Shiloh Church. By 4:30 p.m., Confederate forces were preparing to drive the Union army off the bluff above Pittsburg Landing. Fresh troops under Nelson reached the top of that hill between 5:20 and 5:35 and that gave hope to a desperate situation and helped stem the tide. Monday morning Nelson’s Fourth Division bore the brunt of the fighting on the left. Late on the afternoon of April 7, 1862, the Confederates withdrew and the bloodiest fighting that had ever occurred in the Western hemisphere was over.

Siege of Corinth

Nelson was the first to enter Corinth on May 30, 1862, and he immediately became embroiled in a disgraceful fight with Brig. Gen. John Pope over who deserved credit for occupying the abandoned town. Several weeks later, Nelson was caught-up in an ill-fated advance against Chattanooga that put him in the unenviable position of going against enemy cavalry with overburdened infantry. The subsequent Confederate invasion of Kentucky brought him back to Louisville with instructions to re-open the line of communication with Nashville.

Battle of Richmond (Kentucky)

Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright had received command of the Department of the Ohio which included Kentucky and he ordered Nelson to Lexington to organize incoming levies of the nascent Army of Kentucky and defend against the veteran army of Confederate Maj. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith. Nelson left Brig. Gen. Mahlon D. Manson in charge of troops at Richmond, Kentucky and he returned to Lexington to assemble a relief force to come to the aid of Buell in Tennessee. Two days later, Manson disregarded standing instructions not to engage the enemy with raw levies. Nelson reached the field in mid-afternoon and he rallied the untrained soldiers with the intent of making an orderly withdrawal that evening. The fighting became intense, Nelson received a wound in the upper thigh and he tried to drive the retreating soldiers back by shouting at them and slashing at them with his sword. Those actions brought enormous criticism from a public angered by possibility that this devastating reversal would lead to a Confederate takeover of Kentucky.

Death at Louisville

By September 18, Nelson had recuperated to the point where he could resume command of the forces defending against the Confederate threat to Louisville. On Monday, September 22, Nelson dismissed Brig. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis from the temporary command of the Home Guard Brigade and ordered him to report to Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright in Cincinnati. Davis appealed to Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton and they went to Louisville. About 8:00 a.m. Monday, September 29, Davis confronted Nelson in the lobby of the Galt House hotel. There was an exchange of sharp words and obscenities that culminated with Nelson slapping Davis on the side of the head. This was a horrible embarrassment for a regular army officer and Davis borrowed a revolver from a lawyer friend. He saw that Nelson was about to start back down the stairway leading into the lobby. Davis rushed over, challenged the unarmed Nelson, and fired one shot from a Tranter pistol that mortally wounded Nelson. Davis was promptly placed under military arrest. The following afternoon Nelson was interred at Cave Hill Cemetery. Early the next day, Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell started advancing the Army of the Ohio against Confederate Major Generals Edmund Kirby Smith and Braxton Bragg. Two days later, Buell sent a wire to Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck in Washington that asked for a military tribunal to try Davis for killing Nelson. Halleck referred the matter to Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright in Cincinnati and he made the incredulous observation that since Buell had never proffered any charges to his attention Davis should be returned to duty and the matter dropped. The only effort to prosecute Davis took place in the Jefferson County Circuit; it was removed from the docket several years later. On June 12, 1863, authorities honored the victim by naming the new supply depot in Jessamine County, Kentucky, Camp Nelson. Two months later, an escort detail removed the remains from Cave Hill Cemetery to Camp Dick Robinson. On March 8, 1872, the family plot at Maysville Cemetery became Nelson's final resting place.[3] Today, his memory is honored by Camp Nelson National Cemetery. Davis was never raised from Brigadier General to the rank of Major General in the regular Army although he held the rank by Brevet; he died in 1879 with the rank of Colonel.

See also


  1. Donald A. Clark, The Notorious "Bull" Nelson: Murdered Civil War General (2011), quotes on pp 81-2
  2. Clark,. The Notorious "Bull" Nelson,. pp. 1–254. 
  3. William "Bull" Nelson at Find a Grave


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